Over the past 40 years, Hockney, 68, has achieved iconic status as one of the world’s greatest living artists and, arguably, the most popular and versatile British artist of recent times. In a category of his own, he has excelled in various disciplines from painting to printmaking, photography and stage design.
Born in the Yorkshire city of Bradford, Hockney knew from age 11 that he wanted to be an artist and began drawing for the school magazine and painting posters for the debating society. At 16, he attended the Bradford School of Art where he developed his skills as a draughtsman. In 1959, after working in hospitals for two years in lieu of national service, Hockney entered London’s Royal College of Art. His stylistic experimentation was fuelled by discussions with fellow student, American artist R. B. Kitaj, and by the work of his greatest inspiration, Pablo Picasso, whose 1960 retrospective at London’s Tate Gallery he found “liberating”.
By the time Hockney graduated from the Royal College in 1962 with a gold medal, he had already acquired a national reputation and begun selling paintings. Among his early successes were the Tea Paintings and Love Paintings, which incorporated images and words. Demonstrating his originality as a print-maker were his series of etchings: A Rake’s Progress (1961-1963), illustrations of Constantine Cavafy’s poems (1966) and Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm (1969).
Hockney’s initial move to Los Angeles in 1964 was a life-defining moment. California – his permanent home since 1978 – signified freedom and he captured Los Angeles’ sensuous lifestyle and landscape in such emblematic paintings as Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool (1966), A Bigger Splash (1967) and Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio (1980). Other symbolic paintings from the 1960s and 1970s are a series of heroically scaled double portraits of his friends and family, including Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71), later voted the most popular modern painting in the Tate, and My Parents (1977).
In the 1980s, Hockney became increasingly fascinated by the technology of modern image-making. He began experimenting with Polaroid photography, photocopying, four-colour reproduction, faxed images and computers. In their sheer number and elaboration, Hockney’s photocollages represent a major body of work.
Since the mid-1970s, Hockney has also worked regularly on stage design. Building on his first theatrical success, Ubu Roi at the Royal Court Theatre, London (1966), he has designed innovative sets and costumes for, among others, UK’s Glyndebourne Opera Festival and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Learning and educating have been the catalysts of Hockney’s life. Although his formal teaching was limited to a few years in the 1960s, he has informed the art world through his books and lectures, and challenged art history, in his book Secret Knowledge, with the radical theory that the sudden appearance of “realism” in the early 15th century, and key later developments, were the result of artists’ experiments with projected images – made using mirrors and lenses.
Made a Companion of Honour in 1997, the much-awarded Hockney has come full circle with his recent works, double portraits of friends, but for the first time in watercolour. In 2005, he exhibited new watercolours of the East Yorkshire landscape and resumed painting portraits in oil. Always engrossed in some new passion, he continues to keep people guessing as to what he will do next.